2 – THE CHANGEUP
Like a bolt of lightning, Vic sprinted back into the house, knocking the screen door off one of its hinges.
He blazed through the living room, hopped over a laundry basket in the hallway and bulldozed open the back-porch door. The heavy footfalls of the police officer hadn’t left his ears. He heard the man chasing after him.
“OH MY GOD, VICENTE! WHAT DID YOU DO?” Cat screamed from somewhere in the front of the house, maybe she was even still in the front yard.
“Stop!” Reccard called out to him, already sounding winded.
Vic kept his pace, scrambling up and over the backyard gate. When his feet hit the gravel of the alleyway, he shot to the west. His best chance was to get closer to the campus, get into a crowd. But most of all, he needed time. Time to learn what happened and time to think of his next move.
Above all, Vic didn’t want to go back to jail or have to leave Cat again. Until today, he put faith in the idea that things were going to work out for them. Cat would get back into her schooling, find herself, and maybe even establish a career. He would be careful, avoid trouble and maybe even do something with photography to better himself.
But was that all dusted?
There was a struggling strip mall a few blocks west that was his first goal. The parking lot would be busy enough at this time of late afternoon. He could make for the Frye’s Grocery Store. Plenty of shoppers getting tonight’s dinner.
Sirens blared at the other end of the alley behind him. They must’ve thought he headed the other way. Now the police cruiser barreled down the alley trying to play catchup.
Not breaking stride, he cut right at the end and pumped his legs faster. He had to get to that parking lot first. He heard several dogs barking at the commotion.
His thoughts whirled around the image of blood dripping steadily from holes in his trunk. What the hell was in my car? I didn’t see anything in the house and no one came after me. How can this be happening?
Three blocks ahead, he saw the sign for the grocery store and the various oddity stores. Cars were streaming in and out of the lot. He weaved around them and made a straight line for the entrance.
Sweat poured down his neck and between his shoulders. His black curly hair matted at the sides around his ears. He crossed the entry, stopping to catch his breath. Vic knew he had out-run the first officer, but he only had seconds before more would arrive in the lot.
He briskly walked toward the back, trying not to attract more attention. Below the neon sign for the Produce, an arrow pointed toward the restrooms. A man in his late fifties guided a cart with stacks of open boxes through a set of double plastic doors.
“Excuse me, didn’t see you. Need a window in one of those swinging doors,” he complained.
Vic nodded and swung around him. In the back room, one of the fluorescents flickered and buzzed like an angry bee. A cloying rotted citrus smell bowled into him and nearly made him gag. More stacks of fruit boxes filled the majority of the room and lined two of the cement walls. A desk and a corkboard covered in Postit notes saddled the other wall.
An open doorway led to a dark back stockroom and docking port. He saw a glowing-red exit sign above a metal set of double-doors.
Without thinking, he pushed the door open and triggered a piercing alarm.
Damn! Damn damn damn, he cursed to himself. He knew better – he’d just blown his advantage.
“HEY KID!” the produce clerk called after him.
He dashed to the left, avoided the sloping dock ramp and went parallel to the back of the strip mall shops. Around the corner at the back end, he shot up and over a low, cinder block wall, and landed on a tree-clustered, dirt bank. Ahead of him, he spotted several two-story townhouses.
You ever in a race, change it up – find new clothes fast! It will give you another chance to confuse ’em.
Another pearl of jail-time wisdom from his former cellmate, Rory James Cole.
He froze in his tracks when an idea popped into his head. Rory’s younger brother, Durojaiye “DJ” Cole might be willing to help him. The two had been in the same grade in Brinton Middle School, but Vic had hung out more with Rory back then. The police wouldn’t have him as one of Vic’s known associates.
Looking through a window of the nearest townhouse, it appeared empty. He removed his shirt and wrapped his fist in it. Praying to himself that the owners didn’t have an alarm, he broke the backdoor’s windowpane.
Once inside he was quick with a decision and raced upstairs. There were three bedrooms. He chose the master bedroom.
The walk-in closet had exactly what he wanted: a pullover ASU sweatshirt, grey sweatpants and a baseball cap.
They won’t be looking for another college student. They’ll be looking for a Hispanic kid in a tee shirt and jeans. He grinned to himself.
Looking down to untie his sneakers, he discovered they were stained red with gore.
He rummaged through the dirty clothes on the floor and lucked upon some oversized sneakers. He also discovered a matching ASU backpack.
He stuffed a few more extra sets of clothes in the backpack.
Next to the bed was a black oak dresser with a lamp, several worn out paperbacks and framed photos. He picked up a photo of a young couple on a white sand beach. Seeing their smiling faces gave him a twinge of guilt. He reached for his wallet.
“Shit. No. Sorry, I may need this money. You aren’t on the run from the police.”
He spoke the words, but it was Rory, always the survivor, who was inside his head. Don’t be no damn fool!
He left by the front door and walked with faked confidence. He carried the sneakers in the crook of his arm, stuffing his shaking hands in his jeans pockets.
Several blocks over he made a beeline for the entrance to the Tempe Town Lake Park. More sirens were working their way through the neighborhoods and closing in. He lowered the brim of the baseball cap another inch.
The sun finally dipped below the horizon, but the park lights were stubborn to show themselves. He crossed over 1st Street, cutting through another pair of townhouse complexes.
In the shadows along the shore side, he threw his bloody jeans and sneakers into the flowing water of the man-made lake.
A police helicopter flew west of him, headed to the neighborhoods by the grocery store no doubt. Instinct still told him to take the extra steps and remain out of the light of the streetlamps.
Now that he’d accomplished goal number one, he rested at a metal picnic table. It was one of his unique strengths: calm under pressure. His mind was quick to compartmentalize most situations, or obstacles. Time after time, it walked him through situations in juvie or jail.
I can’t stay here long, he decided, working through his options. Light Rail! Yeah, that’s good. It’ll take me to DJ’s neighborhood and I can still mix in with the crowds.
“Yeah? That does sound just like Rory.”
The two young men were in the living room on beaten down leather couches. A haze of Mint-Madness vape smoke floated through the room. DJ pulled again on his brass vaporizer.
Unlike his brother who was a beanpole and looked like he missed too many meals, DJ was near 5’7”, stocky with short, tight dreads. He also had a never-ceasing grin on his lips.
“With just a few words, your brother could get a prison riot started in a convent!” Vic lamented and laughed.
“I know, right?”
“But he never failed me or left me out there to hang. I owe him a lot. When’s his trial date?”
DJ got up and crossed to a cluttered kitchen counter. The court summons was buried in mail and loose papers.
“Uh… here.” He snatched it up and read it. “Next May. May 9th.”
Rory was facing his third appearance in court for a Breaking and Entering charge. This conviction would garner him the designation “career criminal”.
The two went quiet and DJ plopped down on the couch with a bowl of cheese puffs.
“You sure it’s cool for me to stay on your couch tonight?”
“I’ll be out before 5. They’ll never know I was here and you won’t get any heat for this.” Vic was grateful for the chance the kid was taking on his behalf. Harboring him for the night could get him in serious trouble.
“Gimme that beer, would ya?” DJ pointed at a Coors on the corner of a glass coffee table. “So… you didn’t even know this girl?”
Vic shook his head, rubbing at his nose with the back of his hand. “I went in the back door — there was a note telling me the front door was broken. And when no one answered I tried to find her.”
“Dude… You went inside?”
“I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. Too much sun baking my head today I guess.”
“What’s your plan for tomorrow?”
Vic took a long drink. “I don’t know, at least not yet. I freaked out. Panicked with that cop right there looking at that puddle under the car.”
DJ ate the last puff and stood up. Yawning, he said, “I’m going to check the news on the computer and see what they’re reporting. I can tell you in the morning before you leave. Get some rest. I’m sure this will work out. You didn’t do anything.”
He stated it as though it were a matter of fact, but his eyes asked the question.
Vic replied in a hushed tone, “Nothing.” Then he raised his empty bottle with his own inquiring eyes.
“You’ll want to take it easy on those. A clear head is going to save you in the morning. Here, give me that backpack. I’ll throw those clothes in the washer. You never know what might be on them… College students are walking STDs these days, you know?”
Five minutes later, DJ called out from the back of the apartment, “Oh, hey! Are you hungry? I got some free pizza in the fridge.”
He chuckled, “They delivered this pizza here when you were in the shower, but I didn’t order it. The driver said his shift was over anyway and he was going to report the owners as a ‘no show’. So, he let me just take it.”
“Glad my luck is rubbing off on you.” They laughed together, but it felt forced and awkward. He was beyond exhaustion. The day’s events were starting to hit home.
“JESUS, DUDE!” DJ cursed. There was sheer terror in his voice.
“WHAT’S WRONG?” Vic shouted back.
When there was no answer, he worked up his courage, afraid of what he might see and went to find his friend.
DJ stood next to the washing machine, the backpack spilled open on top of it. Nesting inside was a pair of pale white hands, butcher-cut at the wrists.
“I… No, this…” The beer lurched up in Vic’s stomach and he vomited into the corner of the room.
From over his shoulder, Vic heard DJ on his cell phone. “I’m at 1984 W Dunlap. I need a police officer NOW!”
He then put a hand over the phone and hissed through clenched teeth, “Do the right thing, man. Turn yourself in.”
Vic couldn’t look at him. His eyes were locked on the bloody stumps. The fingernails were painted in bright pinks and yellows with polka dots of blood.